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Tips for helping children do science

3-year-old picks up a green leaf off a mound of otherwise brown and red leaves piled at the base of an almost leafless tree. He turns the leaf over, top to bottom and bottom to top, and says, “Poor guy, he didn’t have a chance to turn red.”

A 4-year-old watches a handful of cornmeal as it slowly falls between his fingers. He observes, “Cornmeal smells like warm bodies.”

A 3-year-old points to a pile of brown leaves that had blown into the far corner of the porch. She asks, “How did the leaves get there?”

We may smile at these comments, but they reveal something important. Children are continually observing, questioning, and describing the things in their world. They are identifying, comparing one thing to another, and communicating their discoveries. They are doing science.
The term strikes fear into the hearts of many early childhood teachers. For example, Ms. Okama remembers her grade school science experiences—memorizing the names of planets and being quizzed on the characteristics of different rocks. Filled with doubt, she thinks, “I can’t teach science to young children.”

Inexperienced teachers sometimes make the mistake of presenting science as magic. For example, Ms. Black, shows children how to put out a lighted votive candle by turning a glass upside down over it. “There, it’s out.” she says, without letting the children discover that fire needs air to burn, measuring how long it takes to go out, or using different sizes of glasses to extinguish the flame.

Science doesn’t need to be scary or magical. A first step in reducing science-teaching anxiety and making science real is to redefine it. What is science? Improved understanding draws us to the next steps. What do we need to think about when planning science activities? How can we promote scientific thinking? How can we extend science to other areas of the classroom?

What is science?
For a young child, science is discovery. The word evokes an image of children using all five senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—to actively explore their surroundings.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
—Isaac Newton

Science in early childhood settings refers to everything young children experience with their senses. Teachers guide children to integrate these experiences into cognitive concepts. Cognitive concepts are ideas about people, places, events, objects and animals that children encounter in their everyday lives.

Jean Piaget, a scientist who developed theories about the way children’s minds work, said that children build concepts from their interactions with peers and adults, and through “hands-on” sensory experiences with objects. For example, children learn a great deal about the properties of rocks by holding, banging, licking, throwing, and washing rocks. Children integrate their sensory experiences into cognitive concepts by learning, with the aid of teachers, the following basic skills of scientific inquiry:

((see PDF for table))

These basic science skills have been identified as developmentally appropriate for young children (Kilmer and Hofman, 1995). Teachers who use developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) regularly encourage children to use these skills. Observing, identifying, comparing, classifying and utilizing information are built in to many activities in a child-centered early childhood program and take place on a daily basis:

((see PDF for table))

As a result, offering science activities does not require learning a whole new set of teaching strategies. However, it does remind us of what many adults have forgotten—the world is amazing. Children know this; many adults have to relearn it. We need to remember that children absorb nature—experiencing it in its full glory (colors, sights, sounds, smells, textures). Children do not take the natural world for granted. They joyfully revel in it and willingly share their joy with adults.
We can capitalize on children’s interest in nature by creating indoor and outdoor physical environments that are rich in natural elements. In this way, we provide many opportunities for children to practice basic science skills.
Harriet E. Huntington (1939), in her classic children’s book , reminds us that ordinary creatures—snails, worms, pill bugs, caterpillars—fascinate children. These creatures can be the subjects of hours of observation and conversation.
Rosemary Althouse (1988) builds a science curriculum around natural or manufactured materials familiar to children, including water, color, blocks, boxes, and bubbles. Children explore multiple properties of these easily accessed elements by participating in her science activities.

We also may find that many of our interests—even passions—contain a science element. By sharing our interests with children, we are likely to introduce similar interest in the children. For example, Ms. Hernandez’s passion for growing plants native to the area can assist children to plant, nurture and observe a variety of native plants. Ms. Gomez can readily share her love of unusual rocks with children indoors and outdoors. Mr. Goya’s wind chime collection can fill the playground with the musical tones of varying-sized wind chimes. His collection inspires the children to build their own chimes that could adorn the entire school. Comparisons of the various tones would sharpen observation, comparison and classifying skills. By offering science activities with concepts familiar to us, we can proceed with confidence and less anxiety.

Planning and setting-up science activities
When planning science activities for young children, we juggle a number of considerations. The more thought we give in advance to an activity, the more likely that the children will realize the concepts underlying their experiences. Here are some guidelines:

Choose new science activities that follow logically from the previous ones. For example, offer colored water and mixing utensils to children who spontaneously mix different colored finger paints.
Follow children’s interests when you plan science activities. For example, build on Yeti’s interest in a pile of leaves by offering her a collection of leaves of various shapes, sizes, and colors to compare.
Document children’s science experiences with photos, written observations, and their own words. This documentation, described in the , allows us to track children’s interests and building upon previous experiences (Chard, 1994 and Katz and Chard, 1997).
Introduce complex concepts through simple activities. Use a simple pan-balance scale to introduce the concept of comparing weights of the same kind of objects (like teddy bear counters). Later offer more advanced weighing devices that require children to compare an object’s weight to a set of standard weights.
Consider whether an activity will be for an individual child or a cooperative event. The choice depends on your goals and objectives, the children’s needs, and the nature of the activity. Tracing the path of a marble down and around a plastic route can be an exciting activity for two children to share. It can also be a solitary pursuit for Melanie who needs quiet surroundings and a way to focus her attention.
Consider how much adult coverage the activity requires before offering it to the children. More specifically, ask: Who is available to supervise? What level of supervision (teacher-child ratio) is needed to ensure children’s safety? How messy is the activity? Is the activity child-directed or teacher-directed? For example, sifting small rocks from sand is a child-directed activity that requires few directions and relatively little teacher supervision for children who understand that rocks stay out of mouths and the sand stays in the tubs. Baking muffins, however, is usually a teacher-directed activity. It requires attention to child safety, advance material preparation, and the availability of an adult who can talk about mixing ingredients, supervise the baking, and model interest in good nutrition when the children eat the muffins for snack.
Select science materials that are found in the children’s home environments, objects the children encounter in their cultural, social, and physical worlds. For example, think about cultural variations in cooking tools and dishes. When you have children identify tools that do or do not hold water, include a tortilla press, a flan dish, and chopsticks. Using only utensils and dishes familiar to the children limits the amount of new information to which they need to pay attention. Familiarity is like the branches of an existing tree on which children grow leaves of new information. It takes less time and effort to grow a leaf than it takes to grow a branch or tree. Familiarity enables children to integrate new information into existing concepts, making learning easier.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
—Albert Einstein